Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

One True Love

It is never lucky for a child to kill her mother in the course of her own birth. Perhaps for this reason, the soothsayer who attended the naming ceremony for Princess Essylt was not a celebrated one. Haidis had barely finished his own apprenticeship when the summons came. He knew that delivering the prophecy for this princess was a thankless job, because no soothsayer in his right mind would attempt to foretell the life of a girl-child born out of death.

His mentor and former teacher told him to sugarcoat the prophecy as much as possible. “She’s unimportant, in the grand scheme of things,” said Gerlach. “King Radek needs a son; he’ll find a new bride soon enough and the princess will simply be married off when she’s older.” He gave Haidis a sharp glance. “Make sure your prophecy sounds true enough, but remember that the king doesn’t need the truth; he only needs a benediction.”

So Haidis went to the naming ceremony prepared to omit any problematic details from the prophecy he would deliver. He planned to stop by the soothsayers’ temple afterward, to make an offering to the God of Prophecy to counteract whatever bad luck he might acquire from being in such close proximity to the princess.

It was a small ceremony, as Haidis expected, and the king himself seemed a little bored, his mind likely focused on his next journey to the war front rather than the baby held in the arms of the nursemaid nearby. The child wouldn’t stop crying, her voice a thin, angry wail that echoed in the cold, stony throne room. When Haidis approached her with the Water of Prophecy and the Sceptre of Truth, she screamed even louder, her mouth stretched open in a tiny O of frustration, her eyes screwed shut. She had wisps of reddish hair on her scalp, and her cheeks were ruddy. He wondered if she would ever grow into a beauty; her mother, the late Queen Lida, had been known for her inheritance, not her looks.

King Radek barked, “Get on with it before the girl makes us all deaf.”

“Apologies, Your Majesty,” Haidis said. He lifted the pewter bowl containing the Water of Prophecy and dipped his fingers in it, dampening the girl’s forehead and cheeks with the liquid. Her squalls stopped as if she was shocked by his touch, and she opened her eyes. They were a vibrant green, as vivid as springtime in the woods outside the castle, and Haidis was as startled by her as she seemed to be by him. She might not become a beauty, he thought, but those eyes were certainly a marvel.

He picked up the Sceptre of Truth and held it over the princess as he began the incantation that would bring him into the trancelike state required to foretell her future. He didn’t expect to fall deeply into the trance; he was too aware of the king glaring at him, not to mention the princess’s luminous green eyes. He kept his own eyes half open, so he saw the moment when the girl reached up with her baby fingers and wrapped them around the Sceptre itself.

This was unusual, and Haidis knew it. He knew it because the Sceptre changed into a living thing at the princess’s touch, and he had to hang on to it with all his might to prevent it from flying out of his hand. His eyes widened, but he did not see the nurse’s astonished expression, or the way the king sat up in surprise. He saw, instead, the princess’s future, and this vision would remain with him for the rest of his life, for it was the first time he had seen true, and he could not resist speaking it wholly, without any of his mentor’s suggested sugarcoating.

“The princess shall grow into a young woman strong and pure,” Haidis intoned. “But when she finds her one true love”—the nursemaids standing in the throne room giggled—“she shall be the downfall of the king.”

The attendants and guests erupted into shocked whispers. Haidis’s vision cleared with a snap, and he saw the baby Princess Essylt gazing up at him with what appeared to be a smile on her face. Terror filled him as he realized what he had said. He pulled the Sceptre of Truth away from the princess, and as it left her hands it became ordinary again.

Behind him the king roared, “Take this abomination away! She shall never be the downfall of me! Take her away or I will have her killed, and she will join her mother in the grave.”

The nursemaid clutched the Princess Essylt to her breast and fled. Haidis swayed on his feet as he wondered if he had sentenced the baby girl to her death with his careless speaking of the truth.

It was the king’s most trusted advisor who devised a solution to the problem of Princess Essylt’s prophecy. “We shall simply never allow the princess to find her true love,” he told the king, “and so your safety will be assured.” Of course, the advisor had ulterior motives—he believed the princess might one day be useful, politically—but he kept that to himself, and the king consented to his plan.

From that day forward, Princess Essylt was restricted to the castle’s West Tower under the supervision of her nursemaid, Auda, and was not allowed to see any man except for her father. He visited her rarely, for he had little desire to see the cause of his prophesied doom. The few times he did visit, he glared down at the princess and demanded, “Are you being an obedient little girl?”

She shrank away from him at first, running back to Auda, who would turn her around forcefully and whisper in her ear, “This is your father, the king of Anvarra, and you are his daughter, a princess, and you must behave as such.”

As the years passed, Essylt learned to bow to her father, and she came to see him as a sort of duty: one that she had inherited by birth, but not one that she enjoyed. She knew that he did not particularly like her, but she did not know why, for Auda kept the prophecy that had relegated her to the West Tower a secret.

Auda was a skilled and loving nursemaid, and she took her job seriously. She knew that the only way Essylt would be content in the tower was if she thought her life was entirely normal. For several years, Auda was quite successful, for she made the West Tower into everything a little girl could wish for. When Essylt wanted new dolls, Auda ordered them; when she asked for playmates, Auda invited the princess’s young female cousins to visit; when she yearned for a pony, Auda convinced the king to deliver one to the gardens adjacent to the West Tower. She even arranged for a female riding instructor to teach Essylt how to ride. Whenever Essylt voiced questions about why she couldn’t go through the heavily carved oak door in the hall, Auda said, “We must keep you safe, for you are the princess of Anvarra, and you must be protected.”

The only times Essylt left the West Tower were on the occasions of her father’s weddings, for it was deemed too unseemly for the princess to remain locked away on such an important day. For those events, Essylt was dressed in veils from head to toe so that no one could see her face. The veils also had the unfortunate—or perhaps intentional—side effect of rendering her mostly blind, so she had to hold Auda’s hand the entire time. That meant that Essylt’s experience of the greater castle was confined to careful study of the floor, glimpsed in flashes through the gap at the bottom of the veils.

During Essylt’s childhood, King Radek married several times, for his wives had a troubling tendency to die. Essylt’s mother, of course, had died in childbed, as did the king’s second wife. His third wife bore two stillborn children—sons, the king noted in despair—before succumbing to a fever. After that, several years passed before the king decided to marry again. Some believed he worried that he was cursed, but others noted that he was merely distracted by a new war that had broken out between Anvarra and its eastern neighbor, the kingdom of Drasik. This war went on season after season, and Essylt passed her thirteenth and fourteenth and fifteenth birthdays with her father away at battle, and no new bride on the castle threshold to draw her out of the West Tower.

As Essylt grew older, she became increasingly curious about the court and her father and why he did not return except once or twice a year, and Auda reluctantly began to answer her questions. In this way, Essylt learned that King Radek had sought an alliance with the island nation of Nawharla’al, which had once been invaded by Drasik but had successfully driven them out through an ingenious use of poison-tipped arrows that spread plague through the Drasik soldiers. In Essylt’s seventeenth year, Anvarra and Nawharla’al fought and won a decisive battle against Drasik. In celebration of victory, the king of Nawharla’al gave his seventeen-year-old daughter Sadiya to King Radek in marriage to further cement their alliance.

Sadiya, like all Nawharla’ali people, had brown skin and black hair, with eyes the color of rich, dark soil. The first time King Radek saw her—in a tent on the side of the road after the last battle—he felt lust stir within him, for he had never seen a girl as beautiful and exotic as she. The king saw the way his attendants looked at her, too, and black jealousy rose within him, even thicker than his lust. He ordered that Sadiya be taken immediately to the West Tower and locked inside until their wedding, which would take place in exactly one fortnight.

Sadiya did not understand what he said, for she had not yet learned the Anvarran language. She only knew that the king’s voice was covetous and greedy, and when he lifted her chin with his hand, she could almost smell the desire on his breath. It took all her years of royal training to not spit in his face, and she prayed to her gods that something would come to deliver her from this marriage.

On the day of Sadiya’s arrival, Essylt was poring over history books in the West Tower’s small library when she heard the heavy oaken doors in the entry hall flung open. Startled, she ran out onto the balcony overlooking the hall and saw a stream of women in strange, colorful clothes entering the tower, bearing a series of curious objects: wooden trunks carved with unfamiliar animals; a golden cage containing a bird with brilliant purple and green feathers; cushions the color of sunsets. Amid all this movement, Essylt saw one girl standing stock-still in the corner, her arms crossed around herself protectively. She was wrapped from head to foot in azure scarves, with only her eyes peering out.

Auda came running into the hall, demanding to know what was going on, and a woman in a plain blue dress detached herself from the entourage of attendants to speak to Auda in low, intense tones.

Essylt came down the stairs. She was drawn to the silent girl in the corner, who looked up at that moment and saw her. A shiver ran down Essylt’s spine: quicksilver, insistent. Go to her.

As Essylt approached, the girl unwound the veils from her face to reveal brown skin, full lips, and dark eyes: a beauty unlike that of any Anvarran woman. This girl took a step away from her corner and extended her hands, palms up, toward Essylt. In the center of her palms a design was painted: swirls and loops that connected to form a pattern that was like a flower, but no flower that Essylt knew. Instinctively, Essylt reached out and covered the girl’s hands with her own, paler ones, and when their skin touched, a tremor went through Essylt’s body. For the first time, she became wholly aware of the way her fingers and toes were connected to the pulsing of her heart, to the breath that fluttered from her lungs to her lips, to the heat that spread over her cheeks.

Behind her, Auda said in a strained tone of voice, “Your Highness, this is the Princess Sadiya of Nawharla’al.” There was another round of feverish whispers between Auda and Sadiya’s chief attendant, who spoke Anvarran with an accent that Auda had never heard before and thus found difficult to understand.

“Sa-dee-ah?” Essylt said uncertainly.

Sah-dee-ya,” the girl corrected, and her name sounded like music on her lips.

Sadiya’s chief attendant said something to her in Nawharla’ali, and Essylt heard her own name amidst the stream of foreign words. “Ess-elt,” Sadiya said tentatively, her gaze never leaving Essylt’s.

Essylt’s heartbeat quickened, and she realized that Sadiya had wrapped her fingers around her own, and it was as if a faint dusting of magic had settled over them, fixing them in place so that they might look at one another for just a bit longer.

It was Auda who broke the spell. “Your Highness,” she said, “Princess Sadiya will be staying here in the West Tower until your father returns in ten days. Then they will be married. The princess will be your new stepmother.”

“My new stepmother?” Essylt said, and saw Sadiya’s attendant whisper something urgently in her ear.

Sadiya pulled her hands away. She knew that her attendants were shocked by how Essylt had touched her and how she had accepted it. The proper greeting would have been for Essylt to hover her hands over Sadiya’s and then to incline her head ever so delicately, but of course Essylt did not know Nawharla’ali customs. Her mistake could be excused, but what had caused Sadiya to hold Essylt’s hands, as if she were a lover rather than a stranger who would someday become her stepdaughter? Sadiya’s face flamed as she realized what a scene she was making.

Essylt did not understand how she had erred, but she saw that Sadiya was uncomfortable, and she regretted it, for already she wanted to ensure that Sadiya was happy. “Welcome,” she said, but then her mouth went dry. She could think of nothing more to say except You are so beautiful, but even Essylt, unpracticed in courtly manners, sensed that others would find that odd, so she bit her lip and remained silent.

But that was enough, and Sadiya smiled, and her face was so exquisitely shining that Essylt was certain that another sun had burned into being right there in the entry hall to the West Tower.

From that moment on, Essylt and Sadiya were inseparable. Essylt taught Sadiya the words for the flowers and plants that grew in the West Tower’s garden, and Sadiya taught Essylt the Nawharla’ali equivalents. Their progress was remarkably fast, for they spent every waking minute together, exclaiming over the sounds of words and the way sentences formed when they spoke them to each other. Essylt learned that Nawharla’al was a kingdom of many islands, and each island was named after a different tropical flower, and each flower was worn by the prince of that island on state occasions. Sadiya learned that summer was short and hot in Anvarra, and she had arrived at its beginning, when the days are long and lush and sometimes so humid that sitting in the shade brought sweat to the skin. Essylt learned that the women of Nawharla’al wore long, loose skirts dyed in shades to match their islands’ flowers, and they preferred to leave their arms bare, binding only their breasts in scarves that matched their skirts. Sadiya learned that the women of Anvarra wore layers of undergarments beneath heavy skirts and bodices that gripped their torsos with whalebone, and she wrinkled her nose at these gowns and said, “I will not wear those,” and Essylt laughed at the expression on Sadiya’s face.

The days they spent together seemed to stretch out luxuriously in the peaceful isolation of the West Tower, but as the fortnight drew to a close, neither girl could avoid the increasing sensation of impending doom, for soon Sadiya would marry Essylt’s father. The night before the wedding, they walked the garden together in silence, as if not speaking would stave off the future. When they parted to sleep in their separate chambers, Essylt held her hands out, palms upward, in the way Sadiya had upon her arrival. Sadiya was surprised, but she hovered her hands over Essylt’s unmarked ones, a bittersweet sadness sweeping through her.

Then, as if she were a knight in a storybook, Essylt raised Sadiya’s hands to her mouth and kissed the knuckles, her lips brushing soft and quick over Sadiya’s skin. A flush spread across Sadiya’s face, and she saw an answering emotion in Essylt’s green eyes.

“Sleep well,” Essylt whispered, and she wished she could sleep beside Sadiya and guard her against any nightmares that might slip into her mind that night.

“A blessing upon you,” Sadiya said in Nawharla’ali, and then backed away before the tears could slip from her eyes. Essylt watched her go, her scarves fluttering in the dim evening light.

The wedding was held in the castle’s Great Hall, which was hung with golden ropes in honor of the God of Matrimony and wreaths of snowbell flowers for the Goddess of Fertility. The morning before the ceremony, which was to take place at noon, Sadiya’s attendants bathed and scented and dressed her in the Nawharla’ali bridal finery they had brought with them. They wrapped her body in fine white linen, and then draped her with scarves the color of the sea in every shade from deepest blue to azure and aquamarine. They hung jewels from her ears and twisted them around her bare arms and throat, and when she stepped into the sunlight she glittered with reflected light. Her lustrous black hair was brushed out and woven with the little white flowers plucked from the gardens around the West Tower, and though they were not the tropical blossoms of Nawharla’al, they served well enough. Essylt especially liked to see the flowers she loved in Sadiya’s hair.

Auda had taken care while dressing Essylt that morning, as well, though Essylt’s gown was much plainer so that she would not outshine the bride—and so that she would draw no man’s eye. Essylt did not like the way the tight stays cut off her breath; she found the layers of skirts confining; and she thought the dove gray of the gown itself was ugly in comparison to the brilliant colors of Sadiya’s clothes. But the thing she hated most was the gray linen veil she was forced to wear, obscuring her hair and face and swathing the whole world in dimness. As they left the West Tower, Essylt followed in Sadiya’s perfumed wake with Auda’s guiding hand on her arm. She felt suffocated and suppressed, each layer of clothing like a hand over her mouth.

In every Anvarran wedding ceremony, a series of customs is dutifully followed in order to ensure that the union is a fertile one. As with every naming ceremony, a prophecy is given, and to be chosen to deliver the prophecy at a royal wedding is a high honor. Haidis, the hapless soothsayer who had presided over Essylt’s naming ceremony, was present at King Radek’s marriage to Princess Sadiya of Nawharla’al, but Haidis had not been chosen to officiate. He came as a guest of his mentor Gerlach, who was prepared to deliver a prophetic benediction on the king’s marriage to the exotic foreign princess if he had to lie to do it.

The wedding prophecy, however, would not take place until after the initial prayers to the God of Matrimony and Goddess of Fertility, led by a high-ranking priest, who intoned the traditional phrases in a voice devoid of emotion. Sadiya was expected to kneel on a cushion at the feet of King Radek during the prayers, and though she did as requested, she refused to lower her gaze, for she did not believe in these gods. To her right, seated in the first row of ornate wooden benches, she could just make out the corner of Essylt’s veil, shroudlike in comparison to the bright colors worn by Sadiya and her attendants.

Essylt did not need to bow her head, for no one could tell if she participated in the prayers at all. Instead, she clenched her hands into fists and hid them beneath the voluminous folds of her hot, scratchy gown. A deep ache began to spread in her, from belly to chest to throat, until she felt as if she might choke from it. She heard the priest ending his series of prayers, and she knew that after this would come the ceremony itself, when Sadiya’s hands would be bound with golden rope to the King’s left wrist, and from that moment on, Sadiya would be her stepmother.

Essylt watched through her veil as the priest picked up the rope and approached Sadiya, still chanting the blessings for matrimony. The rope dangled over Sadiya’s head like a snake uncoiling to strike. The ache that gripped Essylt hardened. A desperate anger galvanized her. She lurched to her feet and felt Auda’s hand reaching for hers, but she shook it away. She ripped off her veil and cried, “No! Please, no. Sadiya, you must not marry him.”

Essylt lunged for the rope and tore it out of the priest’s hands, throwing it behind him onto the stone floor.

Sadiya stood, astonished and terrified and hopeful.

At first everyone in the Great Hall was simply too startled to move, for none could remember a time when a royal wedding had been disrupted in such a manner. In that moment of stunned immobility, Essylt took Sadiya’s hands in hers and pulled her away from the king. Sadiya said to her in Nawharla’ali, “You are mad, my love,” and Essylt responded in the same tongue, “I am mad with love.”

Haidis had watched in shock from his seat as Essylt leapt to her feet, jerking away the marriage rope. As she clutched the hands of the foreign bride, Haidis realized that the prophecy he had delivered on Essylt’s naming day was coming to pass. He stood up—he was the first among the audience to do so—and said under his breath, “The princess shall grow into a young woman strong and pure, but when she finds her one true love—”

Gerlach’s hand gripped his arm. “Do not speak any more!” he hissed, and Haidis’s mouth shut tight in fear as the Great Hall exploded into shouts.

King Radek’s thick, strong hand clamped down on his bride’s shoulder, and as Sadiya winced in pain, he dragged her from his daughter. “What perversity have you wrought on my bride?” he demanded of Essylt, who tried to reach for Sadiya again but was wrenched back by the hands of the king’s soldiers, who had leapt forward at his command. “What damnation are you bringing upon my kingdom? You have been cursed since you killed your own mother, and it was only my mercy that kept you alive.” The king would not take his hands off Sadiya, whom he held near him like a plaything. He growled to his soldiers, “Take Essylt away to the farthest reaches of the darkest forests of the north, and abandon her to the wolves. She is no longer my daughter. May she die alone.”

Essylt heard the words as if from a distance, for all she could focus on was the look of terror on Sadiya’s face. As the soldiers dragged Essylt from the Great Hall, she tried to struggle, but her skirts were too heavy and her bodice too tight, and then someone struck her across the face. Pain burst in her cheek and nose. She screamed and lunged away from the soldiers, but they grabbed her and hit her again and again. The last thing she saw before she fainted from the pain was the glimmer of blue in the jewels around Sadiya’s neck, liquid as the faraway sea.

Essylt awoke in a cage on a moving wagon. She winced as the wagon jolted over a bump and caused her hip to bang against the wooden floor. Outside the bars she saw green fields rolling past beneath a clear late afternoon sky.

She was outside the castle.

This fact alone overwhelmed her. She had never been outside the castle, and her heart began to race as she sat up, hands gripping the bars. She drank in the unfamiliar landscape: stone walls rising and falling over the fields; solitary trees standing watch in the distance; an occasional farmhouse or barn, with horses grazing nearby. It was almost dark before she realized that a man was riding behind the cage, watching her.

A soldier.

She shrank away from the bars, and everything that had happened rushed back to her: Sadiya and her father’s wedding, the marriage rope hanging like a noose above Sadiya’s head, her father’s words. May she die alone.

As the sun set, she wondered whether it was still the day of the wedding. Was this the wedding night? Her stomach twisted. When she had first begun her monthly bleeding, Auda had told her what it meant, and Essylt knew very well what her father desired from his wives: sons. There was a chance that her father had not gone through with the wedding, but the way he had treated Sadiya made Essylt doubt that he would give her up. No, he would take Sadiya as his bride regardless of how perverse he thought his daughter was.

Essylt wanted to throw up, but she hadn’t eaten all day, and she could only cough up bile, bitter and acidic.

The soldier behind the cage rode closer and banged his sword on the bars. “Don’t choke to death, Princess, we’ve a long way to go yet.”

The journey to the wild forests of the north took a week. There were two soldiers: one who drove the wagon, and one who rode behind. They gave her a bowl of water every night that she had to lap up like a dog, and once or twice the driver slipped her a piece of dried beef out of pity, but she was given no other food. Neither of the soldiers ever let her out, so Essylt was forced to relieve herself in one corner, humiliated by the stench that began to rise from her body.

She watched the countryside when she was awake, but as the days passed and she grew weaker, she slid into a half-sleeping doze in which she saw Sadiya’s face hovering over her, radiant and beautiful. She clung to those visions as tightly as she could, the memory of the last words that Sadiya had said echoing in her mind: You are mad, my love. Mad, my love. Mad.

Finally, they reached the pine-forested border of Anvarra. The driver drew the wagon to a halt in a small clearing in the woods and climbed down from his seat. The soldier riding behind dismounted, pulling a black iron key from the chain attached to his swordbelt. Inside the cage, Essylt sat stiffly with her arms around her knees, her bright green eyes wide in her pale face. The soldier unlocked the cage door, which groaned open on its hinges.

“Welcome to your new home,” he said, and laughed. “Time to get out.”

Essylt didn’t move until the soldier reached inside and clamped one hand on her ankle. Frightened, she kicked him in the face. He cursed as blood spurted from his nose, then grabbed both of her ankles, his nails digging into her skin, and dragged her out until she landed with a bruising thump on the ground.

“Never seen a man except your father, eh?” he said, and the tone in his voice made her skin crawl. He began to unbuckle his belt.

Essylt tried to scramble away, but she only banged into the wagon wheel behind her.

“There’s a reason you turned out wrong,” the soldier was saying, a horrible grin on his face. “You need to learn what’s right—”

“Shut up,” said the driver. He smashed a wooden staff into the side of the soldier’s head, knocking him to ground, unconscious. The driver shook his head and looked down at the princess. He had a sister her age, and he would never forgive himself if he let the soldier have his way with her. Even if she was perverse. He jerked his head toward the woods. “You’d better run for it, Princess. You’re on your own now.”

Essylt didn’t hesitate. She jumped up, her legs tingling as she stood for the first time in seven days, and she fled.

She ran over unbroken forest ground, her thin-soled court shoes doing little to cushion her feet from fallen twigs and upturned stones. She ran as the daylight faded and turned the forest into a land of murky shadows, and she slowed down only enough to prevent herself from tripping on the uneven ground. She found a riverbed where the trees parted to reveal a sliver of black night sky strewn with stars, and she knelt down and drank the water from her cupped and dirty hands, and then she kept going.

At some point she removed her whalebone corset so that she could breathe more freely. She stripped off her encumbering underskirts and wrapped her torn shoes in the cloth to cushion her feet. When she was too tired to walk any farther, she made a nest for herself in a bed of fallen pine needles and slept with her head resting on her arms. When she awoke, she continued. She saw no one.

She was hungry, but she did not know what she could eat in the forest, and her book learning had taught her to be wary of unfamiliar plants. A few times she thought she glimpsed the shadowy movement of wolves nearby, and she prayed to the God of Safe Passage to watch over her. She did not know where she was going, but she knew she had a destination. With every step she took, even though her body felt weaker and weaker, she was more and more certain that she had something to live for. Sadiya. Sadiya. Someday, she vowed, she would go back for her. She would return to Anvarra City and save her, and King Radek would pay for what he had done.

• • • •

One morning, after Essylt had walked in a stubborn, starving daze for hours through the dark night, she stumbled through the last of the pine trees into a clearing where she saw a little cottage built of logs. Smoke curled out of the chimney, and the windows were hung with cheerful plaid curtains. She dragged herself the last few steps into the clearing before she collapsed, her body giving up at last.

The cottage belonged to a retired knight named Bowen, who lived there with his wife, Nell. It was Nell who discovered Essylt later that morning, lying in a crumpled heap at the edge of their garden, and it was Bowen who lifted the princess in his burly arms and carried her inside, laying her down on their bed.

Essylt did not wake until evening, and the first thing she saw was an older woman rocking in a chair nearby, knitting. Essylt was not frightened, for the woman had a kind face and reminded her of Auda, but she was disoriented, and she pushed herself up and asked, “Where am I?”

Nell put down her knitting and studied the girl, whose eyes were a remarkable shade of green. Her reddish-gold hair was disheveled and knotted up, and her face was dirty. In fact, all of her was so dirty that she smelled rather unpleasant, but neither Nell nor Bowen would turn away a girl who so obviously needed their help simply because she also needed a bath.

“You’re in the village of Pine Rest,” Nell told her, speaking with an unfamiliar accent. “I found you in our garden this morning. I am Nell, and my husband’s name is Bowen. He is outside. What is your name?”

Essylt stared at the woman, whose gray hair was wound up in braids coiled at the nape of her neck. She seemed kind, and Essylt wanted to trust her, but a knot of fear still held tight within her, and she did not wish to reveal her true identity. “My name is Auda,” Essylt said, and flushed slightly at the lie.

Nell nodded. “You must be hungry.”

Essylt’s stomach awoke at those words and growled so loudly that it embarrassed her. But Nell only smiled and got up from her chair. She left the little room and came back a few minutes later with a bowl of soup. “Something gentle for you,” she said, “while you regain your strength.”

Essylt took the bowl from Nell’s outstretched hands and inhaled the fragrant scent of broth and herbs. She drank every last delicious drop, and then lay down again in Nell and Bowen’s bed and fell asleep instantly, feeling safe at last.

In the morning she met Bowen, who was large and gentle and had lost all his hair except for the bushy white eyebrows that seemed to speak long sentences on their own. She learned that the village of Pine Rest was just over the border from Anvarra in the neighboring kingdom of Ferronia. Essylt remembered from Auda’s geography lessons that Ferronia was rarely concerned with Anvarran politics because the Black Forest that separated the two countries was mostly impassable—and this Essylt could now attest to personally, having crossed it herself on foot. Bowen had been a knight serving the king of Ferronia, but after many years of service he had retired to the village where he had been born. Bowen and Nell’s son, Petra, was a swordsmith whose forge was in Pine Rest, and Petra drew much of his business from Bowen’s old knightly acquaintances.

As the days passed, Essylt regained her strength while Bowen and Nell fussed over her as if she were their long-lost daughter. They set up a pallet for her in the loft over the main room of the cottage, and Essylt began to help out with the chores. She grew strong from tending the garden with Nell and learning how to chop wood with Bowen’s hatchet. And though she came to know the other villagers and to love Bowen and Nell, she kept her secret. Pine Rest might be far from Anvarra City, but the news of Princess Essylt’s depravity had reached Ferronia via traveling minstrels who sang of her tragic lust for the queen. Essylt worried that Bowen and Nell would turn their backs on her in disgust if they knew who she was, so she grew accustomed to being called Auda, and swallowed her own feelings of shame and sorrow. Every day, she thought of Sadiya and her vow to return for her. Every night before she slept, she whispered Sadiya’s name to herself so that she might never forget how to pronounce it.

She spoke with Petra, who had traveled to Anvarra because of his skill as a swordsmith, and began to plot her own return journey. She laid aside a store of food, stealing as little as she could. From the old trunks in the loft where she slept, she discovered a cloak that was moth-eaten but could still keep her warm at night. She felt guilty for taking these things from Nell and Bowen, but she promised herself she would return one day and pay them back if she could. She did not let herself think of where she and Sadiya might go. Was there a place in this world that would have them? She did not know, and it was easier to accept the emptiness of not knowing than to face the fact that she might rescue Sadiya and still fail in giving her a happy life.

One morning she awoke and her body felt ready. She was strong and healthy again, and she had finally stocked enough provisions to last for the several weeks’ journey to Anvarra. But when she went outside to pump water as usual, snow was falling from the sky. She stood on the doorstep in shock as white flakes tumbled down, thick and fast, from iron-gray clouds. How had the summer passed so quickly? She hoped that the snowfall was an early anomaly and that it would only delay her journey by a day or two.

But the snow continued to fall, and it stuck to the ground, and the air became colder and colder until, weeks later, Essylt had to admit that winter had come early and hard, and she would not be able to journey to Anvarra until spring.

It was Nell who found her, weeping silently at the woodpile, her tears turning to ice crystals on her cheeks. “My dear,” Nell said, “whatever is the matter? Come inside and be warm.”

That night, exhausted from the subterfuge, Essylt told her the truth. “I am Essylt,” she said, and speaking her own name out loud broke a dam inside her and she sobbed. Nell gathered her into her arms and stroked her hair and rocked her back and forth as if she were a baby. “I am Essylt,” she said again and again. When at last her tears were spent, she told them of growing up in the West Tower, and the unexpected joy she had felt when she met Sadiya, and the anguish of being forced apart. She told them of her plan to rescue Sadiya, and finally, her voice diminished to a tentative whisper, she said, “I will leave if you will not have me here any longer. You have been so kind to me, and I have only defiled your home.”

Bowen had sat silently in the corner as Essylt confessed her truth, but as Nell’s hands stilled on Essylt’s hair, he said, “It is never a crime to love someone.”

Essylt looked at him in surprise.

Anger darkened Bowen’s face. “The king of Anvarra is a bastard. In the spring, you shall ride to Anvarra City and save your true love, and we will help you.”

“But—but why?” Essylt asked.

Nell had drawn back a little, and Essylt saw that tears streaked down Nell’s face as well. She shook her head. “My dear, we love you like a daughter. That is why.”

As Essylt looked from Nell to Bowen, she felt as if her heart might overflow with gratitude and love for them. “I have never felt like anyone’s daughter,” she said, “but I will do my best to make you proud.”

All winter, Essylt trained with Bowen. “You will need to learn to fight,” he said to her, “for the king will not give up his wife without a battle.”

Bowen took down the old tools of his trade from the attic: his broadsword, which was so big that Essylt had to carry it with two hands, and his armor, which was now darkened with rust. During the days, he forced her to run through snowdrifts with the sword strapped to her back until sweat streamed down her face. At night, she helped him polish the armor until it gleamed. It was too large for her, but Bowen said that Petra could adjust it to her size. And so she began to visit Petra at the forge, where he fitted various pieces of steel to her, muttering under his breath about fashioning a special breastplate.

Essylt could not understand why Petra was willing to do this for her. She knew that he knew who she was now, for he called her Essylt instead of Auda. She thought perhaps he was simply his father’s son, and would not speak out against anyone his father loved. It wasn’t until well past midwinter when she noticed the way Petra spoke to the blacksmith who shared the forge with him: Markus, a broad-shouldered, black-bearded man who sometimes came to supper at Nell and Bowen’s home. There was a certain angle to Petra’s body as he approached Markus, and then Essylt saw him reach out and smooth his hand gently over the man’s shoulder: a caress. Essylt realized with a jolt that Petra did not merely share the forge with the smith; he shared a life with him. She felt a great sense of wonder steal over her, and she had to turn away as tears came to her eyes.

From that day on, she felt as if she had found her family. She would hate to leave them in the spring, but she could come back. She could come back with Sadiya, and they could be happy here.

Petra finished the full suit of armor in late winter. It was light and well balanced, but when Essylt put it on, she felt the strength of the steel close against her muscles, and she knew that it would protect her. To her surprise, Petra also presented her with a sword, forged specially for her height and weight, and the first time she swung it in an arc, it sang in the cold winter air.

She spent the last month of winter parrying with Bowen, and sometimes with Markus, who had been a knight’s squire in his boyhood. She learned how to ride a horse in full armor, her red-gold hair braided and coiled beneath her helm. She learned how to force back a man twice her size with her sleek, elegant sword, her gauntleted hands gripping the beautiful hilt that Petra had designed. And she thought of Sadiya, as she always did, keeping her face alive in her memory, as fresh as the first day she had seen her, standing behind the oak door to the West Tower, swathed in azure scarves.

The news came before she was entirely ready to go, but as soon as she heard it from the mouth of the traveling minstrel at the tavern in Pine Rest, Essylt left to pack her supplies. The Anvarran king had discovered that his island-born wife had been drinking a concoction she had brought from Nawharla’al to prevent herself from conceiving a child. This, King Radek said, was treason. He sentenced Sadiya to die by beheading on the first day of summer, which gave his people time to travel from their villages to witness her public execution.

When this news reached Pine Rest, the last of the winter snow had barely melted, even though the first day of summer was less than one month away. Essylt decided to ride directly through the Black Forest to Anvarra instead of following the highway south. It was dangerous, but it would cut two weeks from her journey.

“There are wolves,” objected Nell, worried.

“They didn’t kill me before,” Essylt said. “They won’t kill me now.”

Bowen and Petra wanted to go with her, but she refused to allow them to come.

“It is my task, and my choice,” she told them. They relented, for they saw the determination in her eyes.

She departed at dawn, riding Markus’s white mare—a horse he insisted she take—with her saddlebags full of food that Nell had prepared. The forest was quiet as she rode south, with only the sound of her horse’s passage to accompany her. Petra’s armor sat lightly on her shoulders, and already she was so familiar with her sword that when she slept, she rested her hands upon it. She did not feel threatened by the wolves she glimpsed sometimes at night, their eyes reflecting the light from her campfire. They saw her weapons, and they left her alone.

She emerged from the Black Forest two weeks later, and struck out on the hard-packed dirt road that led southeast toward Anvarra City. At first she was alone on the highway, but as she drew closer to Anvarra City, other travelers joined her, all on their way to the execution. At night, she camped as far from the other travelers as she could. She kept her armor covered with her long brown cloak, and she did not remove her helm in the daylight. She could not reveal who she was, for the Princess Essylt was supposed to be dead.

She arrived on the eve of the execution, and though she could have ridden into the city and bought herself a room at an inn, she could not bring herself to pass through the gates. In the distance she saw the West Tower—her old home—and now she recognized it as a prison. She wondered what had happened to Auda, and her gut wrenched, for though Auda had always maintained a certain formal distance from her, she was the one who had raised her.

All night, Essylt lay awake beneath a spreading oak tree on the side of the highway, watching the silhouette of the castle on the hill. When dawn broke, Essylt was already mounted on her horse and waiting outside the city gates. Hundreds of other people surged around her, eager to view the death of the traitorous foreign queen. Their jubilation made Essylt sick with rage, and her fingers trembled as she curled them into fists on her thighs.

A stage had been erected at the northern edge of the central square, and on that stage the executioner’s block was waiting. Essylt rode into the square, surrounded by the crowd and unnoticed by the soldiers who stood guard along the perimeter. She found a place near the stage, beside a fountain that shot cool water up into the warm summer morning. The scent of snowbell blossoms hung thick in the air, sweet and cloying. The people in the square chattered about the coming event, but Essylt paid no attention to them. Her entire body was tense and alert, her heart beating a war drum in her chest. She could sense Sadiya approaching—as if they were connected, flesh and bone drawn together—and when the murmur of the crowd crescendoed, she looked to the north and saw the king riding into the square on a black stallion.

He was flanked by soldiers and followed by a wagon with a cage strapped onto it—the same kind of cage that Essylt herself had been locked into. Within the cage, Sadiya was seated with her hands bound behind her back.

The crowd exclaimed at its first glimpse of her: hair loose and tangled, a rough sackcloth dress draped over her body, her face bruised but defiant.

Essylt felt as if an arrow had torn into her belly. She had to suck in the muggy air to calm herself down, for her mare sensed her nerves and began to prance in place. Essylt wanted to rush forward at that very moment and seize Sadiya from the soldiers, but she remembered what Bowen had taught her, and she forced herself to wait.

She waited as the executioner mounted the stage, his black cowl hiding his face from the crowd, the sun glinting on the blade of his axe. She waited as the king, resplendent in purple robes, joined the executioner. She waited as the cage door was unlocked and Sadiya was pulled out, barefoot, onto the cobblestones of the square. She waited as Sadiya was hauled onto the stage by two soldiers who bent her arms back at an angle that made Essylt wince to see it.

She waited until the king said: “For betraying me, and by extension, your people; for dishonoring me, and by extension, your people; for murdering before birth my very own children and heirs; for all this, you are sentenced to death.”

Then—and only then—Essylt threw off her cloak. Her armor shone silver-bright in the sun, and her white horse leapt through the crowd that parted before her, their mouths agape in excitement. Everyone on the stage turned to see a knight riding toward them, sword raised in the air. From the margins of the square, the king’s soldiers raised their bows and shot, their arrows flying toward the rider.

Essylt felt an arrow slam against her back, but Petra’s armor held. Then she was at the edge of the stage and the archers had to stop shooting, because the soldiers were in their line of sight. She pulled herself onto the stage and met the first soldier with her sword raised. She shoved him back with all her strength, her steel blade screaming against his. The soldier stumbled, startled by her assault, but he had a second to back him up, and then Essylt had to fight two of them.

But the soldiers wore standard-issue armor, not nearly as well crafted as hers. She could slice their breastplates off with ease, and beneath that, they weren’t even wearing chain mail. No one had expected an attack at the queen’s execution. Essylt disarmed one and slashed open his side. He yelped and fell off the stage into the crowd. The other came at her with his broadsword, but she used his momentum against him and flipped him onto his back, knocking his weapon out of his hands and tipping the point of her sword against his throat. His eyes bulged up at her and for an instant she hesitated—was she going to kill a man?—but out of the corner of her eye she saw him pull a dagger from his boot and ready it to throw at her. Before his weapon left his hand, she cut his throat.

She looked up and across the stage, her heart pounding, and called, “Sadiya!”

Sadiya had watched the knight beat back the king’s soldiers with a rising sense of hope, and when she heard the voice behind the helm, she knew who it was, and hope exploded into joy. She tried to run to her, but the king grabbed her arm, yanking her back. He shouted, “Who would dare to act against me?”

Essylt took off her helm. The long braid of her red-gold hair fell out over her shoulder, and she said, “Father, I dare.”

The king’s face was a mask of fury as he beheld his daughter standing before him—his daughter who should be dead, and yet she was alive and breathing, her green eyes glinting like emeralds as she raised a sword against him, and he unarmed.

“Give me a weapon!” the king cried. The executioner stepped forward and handed the king his axe.

The king swung it in an arc, and Essylt met the axe handle with her sword. The thunk of metal meeting wood rang through the square. She jerked the sword back and leapt away as the king advanced, his eyes wild with anger. She parried him again, and this time the handle of the axe broke as the sword cleaved through it. The axe head clattered onto the stage.

“A weapon!” the king shouted again. A soldier in the crowd tried to shove his way through to give the king his sword, but the crowd—riveted by the spectacle before them—would not let him pass.

“I will not kill you unarmed,” Essylt called. “Let us go and you will never see us again.”

“Never,” the king snarled. “You will die. Both of you will die here today.”

Suddenly Sadiya stepped over the body of the dead soldier and said, “She may not kill you unarmed, but I will.” She lunged toward the king and shoved the soldier’s dagger into the king’s chest, thrusting it straight through the rich purple velvet, and the king fell, howling, to the wooden boards of the stage.

Sadiya stood above him, gasping, her hands bloody, and spit on his face.

The crowd roared.

Essylt saw the hatred in her father’s eyes swept away by fear and bewilderment as his hands scrabbled furiously at the dagger. Sadiya turned to Essylt, wiping her bloodied hands on the ruins of her dress. Essylt reached for her and crushed her into her arms, and Sadiya’s body shook against Essylt’s armor. All around them the crowd murmured. Those who had been close to the stage had heard Essylt declare who she was, and now they passed that knowledge back across the square, until all who had gathered for Sadiya’s execution understood that Princess Essylt was not dead—she was alive—and the words of her naming-day prophecy were repeated until it became a slow and steady hum.

The princess shall grow into a young woman strong and pure, but when she finds her one true love, she shall be the downfall of the king.

Prophecies, the people said, were not always straightforward, but if they were real, they were true. None who saw the way that Essylt and Sadiya held each other that day could deny the strength of their love. But for many years to come, they debated whether it was Essylt or Sadiya who had been the downfall of the king.

No one stopped Essylt and Sadiya as they left the city. No soldier lifted a weapon to harm them; no man or woman shouted a curse. They rode as far as they could before stopping to rest their horse. They found a sweet little spring bubbling out of a rocky cleft in a hill near the road, and dismounted to allow the mare to drink.

Then Essylt took off her armor, and Sadiya peeled off her soiled dress, and they waded into the water and scrubbed the dried blood and sweat and dirt from their skin. When they emerged from the spring, naked and wet in the warm evening air, they saw each other as if for the first time: one woman dark and slender; one woman fair and muscular. Essylt took Sadiya’s hands in her own and pulled her close, their breasts and hips sliding together, slick and soft, and her breath caught in her throat as Sadiya whispered, “You are my one true love.”

Essylt wrapped her arms around Sadiya’s waist. Her fingers found the hollow of Sadiya’s lower back, her spine like a string of jewels, and she leaned in, pausing to remember this moment always, and kissed her.

Thanks to Liz Gorinsky for contributing to the selection of this story. —eds.

Malinda Lo

Malinda Lo is the author of several young adult novels, including most recently A Line in the Dark. Her novel Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and was a Kirkus Best Book for Children and Teens. She has been a three-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Malinda’s nonfiction has been published by The New York Times Book Review, NPR, The Huffington Post, The Toast, The Horn Book, and AfterEllen. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog. Her website is malindalo.com.